Block Island is more than sand and beaches

Fri, 11/08/2019 - 4:45am

This past summer was the first time my dad’s side of the family visited Block Island, partially to honor my Block Island grandfather, Jon Emsbo, who died in January. My visiting grandfather, Paul Mattingly, is an avid and published historian who taught at New York University. Of course, the visit had to include a trip to the Block Island Historical Society. 

So, one morning, my father and grandfather left to visit the Historical Society. After they were gone for three hours and counting, we started to worry. They returned with big smiles. My grandfather stressed that more should be known about the Historical Society, calling it “a hidden jewel.” I suggested he write something for the paper. 

This is what he wrote: 

For people going to New York for the first time, there is the Museum of the City of New York; for those going to Paris, there is the Musee de Carnavalet; for those ferrying over to Block Island, there is the Block Island Historical Society. 

Each one is a jewel of orientation for their space: who first settled, who endured when things got tough, what special events affected the lives of their residents? — etc. In Block Island’s case, there were originally the Manisses, a branch of the Narragansett Indians, who cultivated beans and maize and fished the waters. They also used the distance from the mainland as a watery protective device from the envious. In later generations, other technologies, including steamships, permitted more efficient uses of the land and sea. 

People traveling to other towns and cultures need to know what went before. They need it to have the full experience of being elsewhere, of putting their own views in perspective. The Block Island Historical Society has a treasure-trove of old maps to show how people thought about their space; they have a wonderful collection of tools and furniture, once rooted in people’s lives and now lovingly cared for. There is even a surprising collection of seascapes by once-coveted artist, Reynolds Beal, a world-traveler who kept coming back to Montauk and Block Island.

Of course, people come to Block Island for the sun and the beach but there is so much more. To get your own private orientation, take advantage of the Block Island Historical Society.

Exhibits and tours may be booked off season by appointment by calling (401) 466-2481. Consider a donation to the Society with your end-of-year giving online at or mail to P.O. Box 79, Block Island, R.I. 02807.

Paul H. Mattinglyan Emeritus Professor of History at New York University, co-founded and directed NYU’s pioneering program in Public History. He was recently on Block Island as a guest of the Emsbo family, which gathered to remember Jon Emsbo.